Isaiah 44:24-45:25 Surprise!
Enough is enough! It’s time to unveil the mystery man the last few chapters of Isaiah have been hinting at. But first: a little about God.
In this section of Isaiah, God stresses that He is Creator (44:24; 45:7-9, 11-12, 18), the all-wise God (44:25, 45:9-11, 15-17, 18, 21-22), and God and God alone (45:5-6, 18-24). He shows Himself to be so far above and beyond man that clearly, all that’s left for man to do is to agree with Him and get out of the way. But not so fast. There is the matter of Isaiah 44:26: “who (meaning God) carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers.”
I love pondering the paradox of God. A paradox is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true.” Paradox has become one of my favorite words. It explains so much while explaining so very little. It relieves a lot of the pressure on someone like me who feels that everything needs to be explained. I’m learning that it doesn’t and it can’t.
This verse presents just such a paradox: He (meaning God) carries out what His servants say, doing what they (meaning the prophets) say He will do. They say it; He does it. I mean, that’s what it says. While I think we all agree that it’s God calling the shots, it appears He has a certain loyalty to what His prophets say. I understand how God’s prophets can say what God will say before He says it—He reveals His heart to them and then gives them the words to express it. But what’s hard for me to grasp is how God can trust His prophets to get it right. I mean, does He give them any leeway? Do they get to decide on some of the details? According to accounts such as Ezekiel 4:9-15, it would seem so. More sobering are those places in the gospels that say Jesus did things to fulfill the words of the prophets. When he recalled Psalm 78:2, did he say, “Let’s see. Asaph said will I speak in parables, so what illustration shall I use today?” I get a headache trying to understand it, let alone explain it, so it’s a good time to say, “it’s a paradox.”
The movement of man is birthed in the will of God and the words of God are accomplished by the hand of man. It’s the age-old tension between the sovereignty of God and man’s free will—the divine paradox that has divided the church for generations.
So here’s the prophecy:
who (meaning God) says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them’ (44:26)
and here’s how it will be fulfilled:
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he (meaning Cyrus) will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ (44:28)
So the word of God was spoken and accomplished by the actions of a pagan king, who, before this twist in history, didn’t even know His name.
It would seem that when a man agrees with God, nothing can stop God’s word from being accomplished, even if that man has no loyalty to God. In such cases, does God dictate the future or arrange the circumstances? Does He twist man’s arm or shape his heart? Twice God said Cyrus would not acknowledge Him, yet Cyrus knew that he was God’s instrument.
Yet those who were supposed to know the God who was speaking? Clueless.
So. The Assyrians came and carried the northern tribes away and then the Babylonians beat up on the Assyrians and carried the southern tribes away. Can you imagine the apprehension in the camps of the captives when a new king came into power? “Oh, great! Now what?” Didn’t it stand to reason that since the conqueror was stronger, he would also be more dreadful?
Unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians, who removed people from their lands to stifle their resistance, Cyrus, king of Persia, returned the captives to their lands to gain their loyalty. (Pretty clever, eh?) Can you imagine what the captives thought when, rather than repress them, he released them? Had they listened to Jeremiah, it would have come as no surprise.
This amazing story is recorded in the book of Ezra:
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord
(God’s idea.) spoken by Jeremiah (Man’s agreement.) the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia (God’s instrument.) to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing.” (Man’s action.)
Boom. There it is: God accomplishes His will without twisting the man’s arm, and man becomes God’s instrument of change.
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” (Ezra 1:1-5)
Although the Israelites weren’t the only people group Cyrus released, it’s evident they had a bit of favor. Cyrus not only sent them home, he sent them on their way with the temple treasures Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had stolen. And then some.
Why? Isaiah 44:28: “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please.”
Before Persia became a mighty nation, they were just a tribe of shepherds living under the rule of an evil king. One night the king dreamt that his grandson would take the throne from him, so he called on one of his servants to take care of his little “problem.” The servant took the boy out into the field to kill him but couldn’t bring himself to do it. He passed the job off to a nearby shepherd, but instead, the kind-hearted shepherd raised the boy as his own. The boy spent his childhood as a shepherd, but in a strange twist of events and with the help of the king’s cowardly servant, he ascended to the throne of Persia. The boy’s name was Cyrus.
All that to fulfill the word God had spoken some 150 years earlier:
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 45:13)
So, at the direction of God’s shepherd Cyrus, more than 50,000 men with their wives and children and 8,000+ assorted animals began the 900-mile trek back to Israel to build a temple for the god that Cyrus didn’t know.
It’s not often that prophecy is this clear. I might go out on a limb and say never. Even the mysterious statue of Daniel 2 leaves some room for interpretation. Often the prophets themselves, while speaking God’s words, don’t fully understand what they’re saying. But for some reason, God wanted to make this prophecy crystal clear. Not only for His people but for King Cyrus too.
“so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name…” (Isaiah 45:3)
Why? I’m not sure. It’s not like Persia experienced a kingdom-wide revival. God said He anointed him (Isaiah 45:1); Cyrus knew God appointed him (Ezra 1:2), yet to Cyrus, He was still the God of heaven, not the God of Cyrus. Twice God acknowledged that Cyrus wouldn’t acknowledge Him, but that didn’t seem to offend God. He summoned him, He honored him, and He strengthened him anyway (Isaiah 45:1-5).
Once again, the heart of the king was in God’s hand. The hearts of the kings of Assyria and Babylon had been in His hand for destruction; the heart of the king of Persia was in His hand for restoration.
I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty.” (45:13)
And, not surprisingly, God says He does all this for the same reason He does it all:
“For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen (45:4).
And God, being God, extends His promises to those outside—that by becoming the slaves of His people they could become the servants of God. He names only three groups, but the three represent some characteristics of those who will come to know the truth: Egypt the strong, Cush the prosperous, and the Sabateans, the noble. They will come to acknowledge the God of little Israel as the Creator, the only wise God, and God and God alone.
In that day, when all is made clear, they will say:
Surely God is with you, and there is no other; there is no other god.
Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel (45:14-15).
“Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Was it not I, the Lord?
And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.
“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.
They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.’”
All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But all the descendants of Israel will find deliverance in the Lord and will make their boast in him. (45:20-25)
And by this point in our study, that should come as no surprise at all.